What does coaching mean to me? UK Coaching Week 2020
Today is the last day of UK Coaching Week. I hadn't come across this initiative before, but I really like its values and focus on encouraging committed, skilled coaching, and the importance of coaches across activities and disciplines in building the people they coach back up after lockdown. The values of their "Great Coaching Pledge" campaign inspired me to write this week's post about six things coaching at my RDA group means to me...
I saw a post from "A Coach's Diary" on Facebook a few weeks ago. It read, simply: "Every kid deserves someone who believes in them. Be that person." If I have learnt anything from almost nine year with my RDA group, it's that the riders who pass through its gates respond to few things better than honest, open, heartfelt belief. The same children who frown at me when I say, lightly "you will be a brilliant rider" are the same ones who grow up to throw themselves into every challenge their time in the saddle brings them. The ones who need to be talked off a ceiling before they go to ride their dressage test are the same ones who come back and say "you were right: I could do it".
For us, this sentiment is as important for adults as it is for children, and I hope that there will always be more than just me at RDA who believes in each one of my riders; it is just exceedingly important that I feel that belief as their coach. This takes concentration to refine, because believing in individuals means believing in equally individual dreams and abilities (not everyone is going to be a Paralympian). It takes little more than an open mind and a dedicated heart to feel.
2. Skill building
Coaching is a two-way relationship, and I'm not interested in either side coming out of the relationship without learning something, growing in some way, or developing some sort of new skill. I'm at a point in my coaching career when I've been doing it for long enough to know my way of doing it, but am looking at the prospect of a long future where I will have lots of opportunities to alter and improve that way. Gaining and building new skills is good for everyone's self esteem and mental agility; why on earth wouldn't I want that for myself? I think good coaches thrive off seeing their athletes building new skills as a result of their coaching, which in turn lay the foundations for the next set of new skills. A safe coach-athlete relationship is essential; a caring one is nice; a progressive, trusting one is great.
I have said many times before that being an RDA volunteer, and more specifically a coach, has made me a better person. I have also said that the main reason this is so is that RDA has made me more selfless. The coach is not the main event of an RDA session: the participants, and often the horses, are. Being able to share my riders' excitement, contentment, or senses of accomplishment is far more uplifting than patting myself on the back and saying "well, wasn't that a good lesson?" will ever be. When I am working closely with other volunteers to support a rider, it feels good to share that emotional investment. When parents and carers feel comfortable with me as a coach, it's wonderful when they feel able to share more about their child which helps me coach them better. Best of all is when my riders get to know me well enough to share stories with me (yes! Please tell me about your visit to Legoland, or your new pet rabbit!)... or better still, jokes.
I think all coaches know that this is important, but all (myself included) also know that they could probably do with taking more time to seek out opportunities for collaboration. As a coach, I am constantly learning. Sometimes that learning is a byproduct of the experience of coaching itself: new situations and challenges pop up all over the place in RDA. Being able to face those new things as a joint effort with another coach, however, or being able to draw upon the experience of a more (or simply differently) experienced coach, gives a turbo boost to the learning experience. There's also the somewhat obvious fact that running an RDA session isn't a one man show: even if we are independent beings who like to get our own stuff done, we can't "do" RDA alone. For me, collaboration in coaching begins with clear, understanding, two-way conversation. I know I have learnt the most from those who outgun me in terms of skill and experience, but who are just as willing to teach as they are to listen.
The coaching community is unusual in that it has large professional and voluntary contingents. I am in the latter, and whilst I am enthusiastic about my experiences, don't ever see myself giving up my career to become a full time coach. I think having a relationship with my coaching responsibilities different to my relationship with my day job really makes me value the fun to be had as an RDA coach. That's not to say that being paid to coach takes away any semblance of enjoyment, of course; I just don't think it's a bad thing to admit that I'd like to have fun doing something I am giving a reasonable chunk of my free time to do. I don't mind a level of the non-fun stuff (admin... logistics... problem solving...) if I'm still getting the buzz of enjoyment from working with my riders, and seeing them enjoy themselves too. Hard work can be lots of fun, especially when a goal gets achieved in style, but the day I stop enjoying my gymkhana parties the last session before Christmas I will be asking myself some serious questions.
At the heart of all of this is something very simple: coaching, for me, comes from a place of love. I consider myself very fortunate to be part of an organisation where this is the case for so many coaches. I could talk for a long time (I think I already have) about what a good coach should or could do (or not), but it all has to start with love. There is love for the sport, for the horses, for the mission of the organisation. Love for progress, for fun, for each individual rider and their families. Love for the generosity of fellow volunteers, for teamwork, and for the impetus to do something good. I don't think it's all we need, but it's important for it to be there.